Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Blog post by Eva-maria Schnelten

In September, the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona hosted the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, a renowned school for postgraduate students and researchers to gather, present and discuss the newest developments in their respective fields.

A few members of Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh were able to attend this year, promoting their research either in an oral presentation or a poster session.

The overarching theme was, as the name suggests, research concerning bilingualism and multilingualism: ranging from neuro-cognitive factors and the implications for ageing and health to the sociolinguistic development in bilingual children. The talks and posters provided an interesting and broad overview of the work that has been conducted in the field. [Read more…]

Myths and Misconceptions in Multilingualism

©iStock.com/Giii

Post by Dr Thomas Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of travel restrictions, Vienna become a favourite destination for Eastern Europeans keen to buy hitherto unavailable Western goods. My West German friend Wilhelm recalled a conversation with an East German colleague while looking at the frantic markets. “Poor Viennese”, said the East German, “those Eastern Europeans will buy everything and leave them with nothing”. “Lucky Viennese”, answered Wilhelm, “they are doing the business of their lifetime”. Obviously, their comments reflected different economic reality under which they grew up, but they illustrate rather well the general contrast between “limited resource” and “added value” models. [Read more…]

How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. [Read more…]

Short-term language learning aids mental agility

Mental agility can be boosted by even a short period of learning a language, suggests a new study by Bilingualism Matters researchers.

Students aged 18 – 78 were tested on their attention levels before and after a one-week intensive Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. Researchers compared these results with those of people who completed a one week course that did not involve learning a new language, and with a group who did not complete any course.

At the end of the week, participants on the language course performed significantly better than those who did not take any course. This improvement was found for learners of all ages, from 18 to 78 years. There was no difference between those who took a non-language course and those who took no course.

Researchers also found that these benefits could be maintained with regular practice. Nine months after the initial course, all those who had practised five hours or more per week improved from their baseline performance. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

New funded project on multilingualism

We are delighted to announce that Bilingualism Matters deputy director Dr Thomas Bak is Co-Investigator on a major new project on multilingualism.

The four year project, “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS)”, will seek to understand multilingualism through a range of interdisciplinary research themes – from literature, film and culture, to diversity and social cohesion. Dr Thomas Bak will lead a strand on cognition, health and well-being. The researchers will cover languages taught as part of a modern languages curriculum in the UK (e.g. French, German, Mandarin, Spanish), European minority languages (e.g. Catalan, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Ukrainian), and community languages (e.g. Cantonese, Polish, Punjabi).

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Open World Research Initiative which aims to raise the profile and visibility of Modern Languages and the crucial role they play in society.

More information:
Find out more about the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, including other funded projects: Open World Research Initiative

Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all. [Read more…]

Knowing multiple languages can improve recovery from stroke

People who speak more than one language are more likely to recover from a stroke than monolingual patients, research suggests.

Researchers have found that people who speak multiple languages are twice as likely to recover their mental functions after stroke as those who speak one language.

The study, co-authored by Bilingualism Matters Deputy Director Dr. Thomas Bak, gathered data from 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India. The patients were assessed on their attention skills and the ability to retrieve and organise information.

The researchers found about 40 per cent of bilingual patients had normal mental function following a stroke, compared with 20 per cent of single language patients. [Read more…]

Learning to read: does being bilingual help or hinder?

Does learning to read in one language help children learn to read in another language? Research on children learning to read in two languages with similar writing systems (e.g. English and Spanish) suggests that it might. But what if the writing systems differ as dramatically as, for example, English and Chinese? Does this still give bilinguals an advantage? Or might knowledge of one language actually be a hindrance in learning to read in another, very different, language? [Read more…]

Workshop on Bilingualism and Executive Function: An Interdisciplinary Approach

18-19 May 2015, New York

Bilingualism Matters researchers Dr. Thomas Bak and Prof. Antonella Sorace joined language scientists and cognitive psychologists from around the world to discuss the relationship between speaking more than one language, and other mental skills such as the ability to focus attention or switch between tasks. These skills are often referred to as “executive function”.

There are many different ways of testing this sort of ability. For example, one common task for children involves asking them to sort cards first by the picture they show, and then by the colour of that picture – ignoring the picture itself. A common task for adults involves asking them to imagine they are in a lift, or elevator. When they hear a high pitch tone they count down one floor, and when they hear a low pitch tone they count up one floor – this forces people to ignore the usual association between high pitch tones and moving or counting upwards. [Read more…]